On the ‘White Album’

The playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag, in his Die Technik des Dramas, outlined a ‘pyramid theory’ of dramatic structure based around five sections: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. Intended as an analysis of Greek and Shakespearean drama, the pattern more or less fits the stories that we read or watch today. The “climax” is the turning point, the moment at which fortunes begin to change (for the better in comedy, for the worse in tragedy). The climax is also generally considered the dramatic zenith, the point at which the plot reaches fulfilment. However, audiences, from Oedipus to Breaking Bad, have found that the section which comes after is the most affecting. Watching the characters’ best-laid plans unravel is the perverse joy of tragedy: the moment from which we can’t look away, yet don’t want to keep watching - the moment when our hope fights against the inevitable.

Released in November 1968 – half a century ago this month – the Beatles’ eponymous double album was released to an uncomfortable mixture of acclaim and censure. Time magazine wrote that it showcased the “best abilities and worst tendencies” of the band, and a critical consensus, shared by many fans to this day, was that it would have been far better had it been half as long. It is a sprawling, bloated, schizophrenic album, unable to hold itself together, often devolving into self-parody, or worse, into bad and boring music. It is also one of the greatest albums ever made.

Fifty years on, the White Album remains an enigma. Few listeners can play it straight through without skipping multiple tracks, and even fewer make it through all eight minutes and twenty-two seconds of Side Four’s ‘Revolution Nine’, despite (or, perhaps because of) its importance in bringing the avant-garde into popular art. Part of its incoherence stems from the way it was made; John Lennon and Paul McCartney would often record in different studios, with different engineers, and many of the songs (‘Julia’, ‘Blackbird’) feature only one of the erstwhile Fab Four actually performing. Ringo stormed out in August, while the band’s sound engineer Geoff Emerick walked out during the recording of ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ after an insult from McCartney. The days of John and Paul writing “eyeball to eyeball” appear a vague and improbable memory. To make matters worse, Yoko Ono’s presence broke the unspoken rule against girlfriends in the studio, and a recent affection for heroin use became far from conducive to productivity.

Considering this, it’s a wonder the album got made at all - let alone spent eight weeks at Number 1. However, we have to remember who we’re dealing with: even when plagued by addiction, tension and growing financial issues, The Beatles were still The Beatles. The cracks beginning to show only add to entertainment value. Much has been said about The Beatles’ story; from four identical suits bursting onto the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, to the exhausted, long-haired cynics of the rooftop concert, their astonishing rise, unprecedented evolution and eventual collapse mirrored the cultural revolution of the Sixties. Sgt. Pepper is often taken as the climax of said story: the moustaches, the cover, the Summer of Love. It is undoubtedly a great album, one that defined a movement and because of this will forever hold a special place in music history. But the songs themselves aren’t particularly good (apart from a few obvious orchestral exceptions). The conceit of the music-hall concert is patchily applied, more of a springboard for creativity than an overarching theme; the album is more symbolic of genius than constituted of it. The Beatles is what happens when that genius begins to tear itself apart, to rage against the limitations imposed by the need for coherence. It is a historical document, the beginning of the end caught on record. It is the sound of four artists trying to pull away from that which they need to survive.

One of the great difficulties about listening to The Beatles is that one is constantly aware of oneself listening to The Beatles. No review written after 1970 can ever detach itself entirely and write an impartial, honest critique of the artwork itself, because the art and the artists are so embedded in our cultural consciousness that each song carries with it the weight of a decade. Listening to a Beatles album is as much an experience of historical and psychological insight as it is an aesthetic one: the White Album, for all its flaws and for all its genius, does this better than any other. It is the ‘falling action’ of one of the great artistic stories, and all these years later, we still can’t look away.

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